A 15-member renters’ commission, which could start meeting as soon as this summer, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. It would fight for laws to help residents who are increasingly struggling with soaring rents and displacement.
Three Seattle council members are working toward giving a bigger presence to a group that’s long been a minority voice in city politics, even though it makes up a majority of all residents: renters.
Tim Burgess, Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien on Thursday said they’re asking the council to form Seattle’s first ever renters’ commission, a group of 15 tenants that would fight for laws to help residents who are increasingly struggling with soaring rents and displacement.
While not a done deal — a landlord group, for one, opposes the idea — the plan does have broad support, and the new commission could begin meeting this summer.
Backers believe it’s the first such commission in the country.
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Beyond obvious issues the group could advocate on — from protecting tenants from displacement, to apartment construction to help ease rents — the commission would also chime in on a wide range of topics such as the city’s transportation woes and public safety.
The question of rent control appears to be a non-starter in Olympia, where state lawmakers would have to lift the statewide ban on such limits before the city could enact one. Still, it’s bound to come up again through the renters’ commission, proponents say.
The commission would also help make sure the city stays on top of enforcing laws already on the books to protect renters. That includes two significant new measures: one that caps move-in fees for tenants, and another that requires landlords to give open apartments to the first qualified renter who submits an application, starting in July.
“This city really is made up of renters. But we’re not part of the conversation; we don’t get included,” said Zachary DeWolf, who first proposed the commission and is president of the Capitol Hill Community Council. “I want to make sure that folks that are so often omitted from these conversations have an actual space to be able to talk about the issues that are important to them.”
The group wouldn’t have any direct power but could recommend actions to the City Council, the mayor and other city officials.
But even that represents a significant improvement. Traditionally, community groups that push legislation to elected officials have been made up of mostly homeowners, and most council members themselves own homes.
City officials say renters also are less likely than homeowners to show up at public meetings, and research shows they are less likely to donate to political causes and vote. But in Seattle, more residents are becoming long-term renters, partly because of generational shifts against homeownership, and largely because they can’t afford to buy a home in what is currently the nation’s hottest housing market.
Over the past year, various groups that help renters and communities of people likely to rent — such as University of Washington students and low-income residents — have been gathering together to figure out how to make their views known, with Capitol Hill as the epicenter of the movement.
The renters found a receptive ear at City Hall, where Councilmember Kshama Sawant has pushed for renters’ rights laws and Mayor Ed Murray spoke at a renters summit last year.
The council last year cut ties to the City Neighborhood Council groups, long a major advocacy body, in part because so many people on those boards were homeowners and were unrepresentative of the city population.
“I don’t think this means we’re going to flip way the other way” and over-value renters’ input, Burgess said in an interview. “I think we’re looking for balance and open dialogue with everyone in the city.”
About 54 percent of Seattle households are renting, a rate that has been slowly rising over the last few decades. A disproportionally high number of renters are people of color, and renters have lower incomes, on average.
Renters are facing more pressure than ever. Zillow on Thursday said rents in Greater Seattle grew nearly 8 percent in the last year, the most of any metro area in the country. Rents have climbed about 40 percent in the last four years, and the average rent now tops $2,000 a month in downtown and South Lake Union, and is over $1,800 in Capitol Hill, Ballard and Fremont.
The city already has 45 boards and commissions, including panels for women, youth, immigrants, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community.
But not everyone is on board. The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents landlords, says renters already have nonprofit groups outside of City Hall pushing renter initiatives.
“We’re concerned that a renters’ commission will turn into a way of further dividing landlords and tenants, and believe that the city should be pursuing solutions which actually help create positive dialogue, not endorsing divisive politics,” said Sean Martin, a spokesman for the housing association.
If approved by the council next month, the commission could be up and running and holding public meetings by July. The mayor and council will appoint most of the members, and are looking for people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including renters who are low-income, students, immigrants, people from the LGBTQ community and those with felony convictions.